The Artistic Life of a Con
The Story of Fulton Leroy Washington’s Second Chance at Life
Thursday, July 20, 2017
About a year ago, Fulton Leroy Washington was preparing to teach his weekly art class to fellow inmates at Lompoc prison when a guard called him to his office. He panicked. His first thought was that one of his eight children had died. “A whole bunch of people were standing in suits and avoiding looking at me,” the 63-year-old recalled.
“Tell me what it is,” he told them. “Don’t give me the long story.”
The short version was that President Barack Obama had commuted his life sentence.
Twenty-one years ago, Washington was pulled over by police while driving with illegal chemicals — according to court records, enough to make more than 100 grams of PCP, the hallucinogenic drug also known as angel dust. He maintained his innocence (as he does to this day) and decided to take the case to trial.
Washington described the details of what happened that day in Compton as “complicated.” His version of the story is that he was doing construction work at an equestrian center when he borrowed a truck from a man who was wanted by the police for manufacturing drugs. Undercover cops were following the vehicle. Washington said he didn’t know there were illegal substances in the back.
A jury ultimately found him guilty, and because of prior convictions for PCP possession, Washington was sentenced to life in prison. At the time of his sentencing, according to court transcripts posted online, the judge lamented, “… [T]hese aren’t the type of defendants, in my opinion, that the mandatory minimums and all that are addressed to, but that, unfortunately I guess, is not for me to decide. … [T]he statutes are such and the guidelines are such that it is required that there be a life imprisonment imposed.”
Fulton Leroy Washington
Washington spent 10 years in Missouri and Colorado federal prisons before he was transferred to the Lompoc facility in 2007. It was definitely not an upgrade. He thought the Colorado prison was like “Jetsons Space Age” compared to the musty old Lompoc prison, where the broken windows made it so cold, he said, “you would swear we were smoking cigarettes” when you exhaled.
Yet, even now, Washington says he does not wish he had accepted a plea deal, which would have meant a lighter punishment. “I’m not going to waste time with regret,” he said. “My life has still been full.”
Released to Life
Washington, or “Mr. Wash,” as he’s known, is a tall, stout man of color. He has a buzz cut and a long, graying goatee. He doesn’t look like a man who spent a third of his life in federal prison.
He can be effortlessly poetic, like a wise, older man who plays a mean chess game but usually lets his grandchildren win. He’s pensive and regularly allows himself to pause before speaking. The conversations we exchanged over seven months, he said, “allow my mind to go in a place it hasn’t been in a long time.”
Fulton Leroy Washington
The first thing he did when he was released from prison was go to Albertsons in Lompoc. Walking through the aisles, he found the market overwhelming. “There were too many colors,” he said. Cherries were all he wanted. They were “real juicy and real sweet,” he thought as he spit the pits out. “I hadn’t had a cherry in over 20-something years,” he said. It was the beginning of “a new life” — “a different life.”
Lost in Art
Washington may have been born an artist, but he did not realize it until he became a prisoner. He had occasionally sketched with colored pencils, but after a fellow inmate left behind his paints when he was released, Mr. Wash thought he would try to paint. He had never even held a brush before, but he became totally immersed, or, as fellow Lompoc prisoner Weldon Angelos put it, “lost in the art.”
“I watched him paint a lot,” Angelos said. Then a twenty-something white man from Salt Lake City, Angelos had a brief career in the music business working with Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg until he was sentenced to 55 years in prison. On several occasions, Angelos, who was accused of having a gun in his possession, had sold $1,000 worth of marijuana to a guy who turned out to be an undercover detective.
(Angelos’s sentence has also now been commuted. Judge Paul Cassell, who sentenced Angelos and is now retired, similarly lamented that his hands were tied. In an open letter to President Barack Obama, he explained how the sentence was “unjust.” The 55-year sentence, he wrote, is “far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second-degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape.”)
When it came to painting, Angelos said the prison guards were more “lax” with Washington. After all, he was known for being the best artist in the compound. “They respected him,” he said. “He carried himself well and didn’t try to be hard.”
The War on Drugs
Obama commuted Washington’s life sentence on May 5, 2016 — the same day he reduced the sentences of 57 other prisoners serving time for nonviolent drug offenses throughout the United States.
Obama sought to reverse the mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders in the 1980s and 1990s. In his eight years in office, he commuted the sentences of about 1,700 prisoners. Presidential candidate Donald Trump lambasted this fact on the campaign trail, sarcastically telling Americans to “sleep tight.”
Now, President Trump appears poised to bring back the tough-on-crime attitudes of the 1980s. In May, Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, issued a two-page memo revoking Obama-era policies that limited the lengths of prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
Sessions’s action, explained clemency attorney James Felman, takes us back to when drug dealers got life in prison for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine. Felman, who worked on Washington’s case, is the cofounder of Clemency Project 2014, a collaborative organization of thousands of attorneys who reviewed 35,000 requests for clemency. In total, the lawyers represented nearly 900 of all prisoners whose sentences were commuted by President Obama. Sessions’s orders, Felman said, “could be Clemency Project 2024 in the making.”
Fulton Leroy Washington
Completed in 2014 to illustrate the clemency process, this piece is now hanging in the foyer of the office of one of Fulton Leroy Washington’s attorneys, James Felman.
Sessions has directed prosecutors to charge what are known as “mandatory minimums.” This mandate, said Laurie Levenson, Loyola Marymount law professor and former federal prosecutor, can leave judges “unduly” forced to hand down harsh sentences. “I think Obama was on the right track, and frankly most prosecutors thought he was on the right track,” she said. “At some level, we should trust our judges and prosecutors.”
It’s hard to say what impact Sessions’s memo will have. But four — or eight — years is certainly enough time “to sweep up a lot of people,” Levenson said. “When you talk about impact, I talk about individuals. I think if the public knew their stories, then they would rather have their money used in another manner.”
Washington grew up in Gardena, California, where his family moved from Louisiana when he was one year old. At 11 years old, he was living in Watts during the 1965 riots. The National Guard staging area, he recalled, was outside his front door. “I was afraid,” he said. But his mother taught him to see the fear in the eyes of authorities, or in his words, the people you trust for protection. “Everything is about perspective,” he said.
As a kid, Washington fixed broken toys that his mother brought home from her job at the Mattel toy factory. He gave away plastic boats and tractors to the other kids living in the projects. “As a child, I was just a builder,” he said. By 17, he opened Leroy’s Handyman. “I felt like I could fix anything,” he said.
I first heard Washington’s story last fall, shortly after he had been released from prison. County supervisor Peter Adam and the county’s Office of Arts & Culture planned to jointly host an event for him at the Lompoc Veterans’ Memorial Building. Washington had donated several pieces to the vets’ building. The first piece, “Home Soil,” paid tribute to local soldiers who had died in the Iraq War.